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       Starters, p.20

           Lissa Price
 
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  “I guess if you’re unhappy they’ll let you exchange,” he said.

  “But then what happens to the donor body?” Briona asked. “I mean, you can’t exactly let that little blonde come back to life three months later. She’d be all like, ‘What happened?’ ”

  “Maybe she wouldn’t notice,” I said.

  “As soon as she looks at her calendar and sees she lost months instead of days,” Lee said, “she’ll know.”

  “The advantage to renting is you can try new things,” Briona said. “If I had a permanent, I wouldn’t dare do anything dangerous, like boxing, for example. But with a rental, it’s no big deal.”

  “Except for the whopping penalty fee,” Lee said.

  “That’s what rental insurance is for,” Briona said. She winked.

  “But permanency is a bargain,” he said. “Huge savings over renting.”

  These Enders were driving me crazy. How could they talk about us this way? We were just vehicles for their pleasure, for their stupid fantasies. If we died, so what, it was covered by insurance.

  They fell silent. Lee’s legs bounced up and down and Briona drummed the table with her long nails. Where had I seen those habits before?

  Lee caught me staring at Briona’s hands. Nervous glances flashed like lasers. I pulled my purse closer to my body.

  A chill washed over me. I knew who they were. They weren’t some random Enders.

  An SUV pulled up to the curb with Raj at the wheel. That was why all the chat. They were waiting for the car.

  “Guess we’re taking our coffee to go.” Briona stood.

  Lee also stood. He slipped his arm in mine. “Ready, Callie?”

  I yanked away and opened my purse. “No.”

  “Come with us.” Briona moved closer.

  I pulled out the gun and pushed it into her side. “I don’t think so. Doris.”

  “Now, careful,” Lee said quietly. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

  “What are you worried about? It’s not your body, Tinnenbaum,” I said.

  Raj, in the SUV, looked over at us. He couldn’t see the gun and was still pretending everything was fine. He held up a paper cup of coffee in an inviting gesture.

  “All this time, you were hiding in those bodies,” I said. “Spying on me.”

  Lee moved to block my way. He was on one side, Briona on the other.

  “Just get in the car, Callie,” she said.

  “I don’t need any coffee,” I said. “I’m wired enough.”

  I pushed Briona away and she stumbled into Lee’s arms. I ran into the shop and out the back entrance.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  I didn’t turn around to see if Lee or Briona was chasing me. No, make that Tinnenbaum or Doris, now that I had figured out who they really were. Who they had been all along. Raj, at the wheel, was probably Rodney, the guy who had escorted me to see Tyler and Michael. Why would the body bank have them spying on me like that, pretending to be normal renters? Had they known about Helena’s plan all along? Or had it started after she altered the chip?

  I came to the street where my car was parked and got in. As I pulled out, I saw a black SUV do a U-turn and follow me. Was that them? I couldn’t see, because a truck got between us.

  I pulled out the new phone and called Tyler’s hotel. I wanted to tell Florina about Michael. “Room 1509, please.”

  “That party checked out this morning,” the operator said.

  “What? No, they couldn’t have.”

  “I’m sorry, but they left this morning.”

  My stomach sank as if I were in an elevator with a cut cable.

  I demanded to speak to the manager who had checked us in. She got on the phone and confirmed what the operator had said. My brother and Florina had left no word as to where to reach them. The manager also said she had seen them get in a car with a man, a senior. He had said he was Florina’s grandfather.

  I felt a numbness come over me like a wave. Florina didn’t have a grandfather. She wouldn’t have been living on the streets if she did. And she would have left me a note.

  Someone had taken them. Who? A ball of fire blinded me. I’d heard of kids being taken for ransom. Had the car and fancy hotel given Florina ideas? Was her nicey-nicey routine all an act? A desperate Starter could do anything these days. Or maybe it was an undercover marshal? Some Ender in the hotel, a client or even an employee looking for side money, could have seen the poor unclaimed minors and ratted on them.

  If that was it, they’d be locked up in one of the institutions. This couldn’t be happening.

  What if it was the body bank?

  They wouldn’t rent out Tyler, of course—he was too young and sickly—but they might use him as bait to lure me in. I clenched my fists.

  I had an urge to go there, gun in hand, and demand to see my brother. But even in my surge of fire, I knew it was impossible to rescue anyone from Prime. They had guards. And big thick doors with locks. And it would be just what they wanted. Not to mention it would be a gamble, because truthfully, I didn’t know where he was. I just knew in my gut it wasn’t good.

  Still, I had to do something.

  I drove onto the gravel by the fence that surrounded Blake’s family ranch and swung my car around so I would be facing the right direction when I left. Best to plan for a quick exit. When I grasped the car door handle to get out, my hand was shaking.

  I rushed across the crunchy gravel path to the front door, keeping my purse over my shoulder, with the strap across my body. I needed easy access to my gun.

  The housekeeper let me in and took me to the living room. It was in grand hacienda style, with a high ceiling and dark, exposed beams. The scent of coffee and tobacco, something that normally would be inviting, made me cringe under these circumstances. He was all money and power, Senator Harrison.

  Blake and his grandfather were sitting in large sienna leather armchairs—until they saw me.

  “What is she doing here?” The senator stood and pointed at me.

  “It’s all right, Grandfather. I invited her.” Blake rose.

  “Why on earth would you do that?”

  “Because she’s got something she wants to say to you.” Blake came over to me and held my hand. I wondered if he’d said anything to his grandfather.

  “Get her out of here now!” the senator yelled.

  My blood was pumping so hard, I thought I heard it throbbing in my ears.

  “Go ahead, Callie.” Blake released my hand. “Tell him.”

  “Tell me what?”

  “Are you aware that what you are doing is murder?” I said.

  He flushed with anger. “Don’t you talk to me that way, you old biddy.”

  I pulled out the gun and aimed it at him. “I’m not old, I’m sixteen. I’m the donor body.”

  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Blake’s jaw drop, but I brought my focus back to the gun. I needed to keep my hand steady. I stood behind one of the couches so I could brace myself against something. I calculated the distance between me and the senator. Roughly twelve feet.

  His face registered surprise. “Then why do you want to kill me?”

  “Your deal with the government and Prime Destinations means that innocent unclaimed minors will be sold to the body bank. And the body bank will let seniors buy them to occupy their bodies for the rest of their lives.”

  The senator was hard to read. His face had a horrified expression, but it wasn’t clear whether this information was news to him.

  “I blame you for this.” He pointed at Blake. “Do something.”

  “She’s making sense, Grandfather. Is it true?” Blake asked him.

  “Is it true?” The senator repeated Blake’s words in a mocking tone.

  “You are going to take me to the man behind Prime,” I said to the senator. “The Old Man.”

  His jaw went slack. “No. I can’t.”

  My palms were perspiring, I was so nervous. The sweat made my grip on the gun loose, slippery.<
br />
  “You don’t want to give me trouble, Senator Harrison, not now. My best friend’s just been bought and my little brother is right behind him. He’s probably in line for his surgery right now, like some dog at the vet. My only hope is to see the Old Man, and if you can’t take me, then I have nothing to lose.”

  “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t do that.”

  “You don’t have a choice.”

  “Just take her, Grandfather,” Blake said. “You know where he works.”

  “Let me put it this way,” the senator said. “If I take you to him, he’ll kill me.”

  “And if you don’t, I’ll kill you.” I struggled to steady my grip. “I warn you, my arms are getting tired, so I’ll give you to three. Isn’t that what they do in the holos? You start walking to that door or on three, I shoot. One.”

  He licked his lips.

  “Two.”

  He swallowed so hard, I could see his Adam’s apple vibrate.

  “Three.” He wasn’t going to move.

  I had to shoot, but I didn’t want to. I imagined the bullet piercing flesh, ripping it apart, the skin curling back in flower-petal shapes as blood spurted like a fountain, flooding the room. My finger quivered, and pulled. It was like I was trying to let go, let the trigger come back to position, but of course that didn’t work, so I shot him. I guess I did want to.

  The gun went off with a high, tinny pop.

  At the same time, or maybe sooner, I’m not sure, Blake went flying over to his grandfather, pushing him hard.

  “Blake!” I screamed.

  They both ended up on the floor, blood starting to stain the cream-and-black Navajo rug. It was coming from the senator’s arm.

  I looked down at them. The senator groaned. Blake tore off his grandfather’s jacket and applied pressure to the wound.

  He looked up at me for a second, his expression one of pure shock and disbelief. “You shot him! You could have killed him.”

  I didn’t know what to say. He was right. I would have killed him if Blake hadn’t intervened.

  “He should have done what I said.”

  “I didn’t think … you’d do it,” the senator said through his pain.

  Neither did I. My heart was racing. I pointed the gun at the senator. “Get him up.”

  “What?” Blake asked.

  “It’s just an arm wound. Get him up on his feet.”

  Blake helped his grandfather to a chair. The senator leaned back, moaning in pain.

  “I didn’t want to do this. You forced me into it.” I motioned with the gun. “So let’s not make this all for nothing. I want you to take me to the Old Man.”

  The senator’s face was pale as he drove his car with one hand. I sat shotgun. I wondered if that was where the expression came from. Or maybe they meant leaning out the window and shooting. In any event, I was sitting there holding the gun on the senator and Blake was in the backseat right behind him.

  “What part of town are we going to?” I asked.

  “Downtown,” the senator said, wincing in pain.

  We had covered his shirt with his jacket so the wound wouldn’t be obvious.

  “I’m not the bad guy here,” I said. “My little brother is sick. I have to find out who took him.”

  “He could be anywhere.” The senator spoke with great effort.

  “You’re right, I don’t know where he is. So I have to search. The Old Man is my best guess.”

  “You seem like a smart young lady. Resourceful. Let me make a proposal. I’ll pull over and let you go, and I won’t report this.”

  “Do I look senile to you?” I asked.

  He stared in the rearview mirror at Blake. I realized then that Blake had been awfully quiet. He hadn’t said a word, actually. What was going on in his head? I guessed I had put him in a no-win situation. I turned around to look at him. Just then, the car swerved hard. The senator floored the gas pedal and turned sharply, crossing lanes until we were on the opposite curb. We rammed into an empty transport bench.

  Airbags deployed, shoving the gun in my hand into my head. Hard.

  When everything stopped moving, the bag deflated. I felt dizzy, and my vision was blurry. The senator opened the back door and pulled Blake out with his one good arm. I couldn’t see if he was hurt.

  I moved in slow motion. The side of my head was wet. I touched it—blood. I could make out the senator helping Blake as they ran away from the car. Blake tried to turn around, his arm reaching out, but his grandfather forced him to keep going.

  I had to get out of the car. Where was the door release? My hand found it, pushed it open. I fell out of the car, onto the road. Everything was out of focus. Shapes, people, ran toward the car. The last one I saw, before everything went black, was a man in uniform.

  A marshal.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  I came to on my back, beneath a bank of harsh lights. I had to squint, the light was so intense. An IV tube snaked down to my arm.

  “She’s awake,” an elderly female voice said.

  “Hello? Can you hear me?” A man’s voice, also an Ender, hovered closer.

  “I can hear you.” I managed to croak out the words. “But I can’t see you.”

  “That’s all right,” he said. “That’s normal. Just take your time. Keep your eyes closed if it’s more comfortable. We’re just going to ask you a few questions, all right?”

  I nodded. My brain felt heavy. Foggy. I wondered what drugs were pumping through that IV.

  “What is your name?” the woman asked.

  “Callie.”

  “Last name?”

  “Woodland.”

  “What is your age?”

  “Sixteen.”

  “Are your parents alive?”

  Her voice sounded familiar.

  “No.”

  “Do you have grandparents or any other guardians?”

  “No.”

  “Are you an unclaimed minor?”

  My head ached. “How long have I been out?”

  “Not long. Just answer the question,” she said. “Are you an unclaimed minor?”

  I didn’t have the strength to lie. “Yes.”

  The questions stopped. I heard her straighten.

  I slowly opened my eyes. My vision was still unreliable. I could make out that the man was dressed in surgical greens, like a doctor. I expected the woman to be a nurse, but she wore gray, not white. She held a tiny metal button in one hand. A recording device.

  “Would you like some water?” the doctor asked me.

  I nodded. He held up a cup. I sipped from the straw.

  “I had to give you stitches for that gash on the side of your head. There will be no scar, it was all under the hairline.”

  “The plate,” the woman said.

  “Yes, what’s the purpose of that plate in your head?”

  I looked around the room. Everything was coming into focus. This wasn’t some state-of-the-art-medical facility; it was bare and dingy. The walls were gray.

  “What hospital is this?” I asked.

  “It’s not a hospital,” he said. “You’re in the infirmary.”

  “In the institution,” the woman said. “Now tell us about the plate.”

  I remembered her. Mrs. Beatty, the head of security. I struggled, but something was holding me down. That was when I saw that my arms and legs were strapped to the table.

  “Get me out of here.” My head was clearing up fast. “It’s a mistake. I have ID. In my purse. I’m really Callie Winterhill. You remember me.”

  They looked at each other.

  “No purse was found in the car,” Beatty said. “We did, however, find a gun.” She pursed her wrinkled lips. “It tested positive for your DNA and prints.”

  A rhythmic pulsing pounded in my ears, getting louder by the second.

  “And the ballistics report said it’s the same gun that shot Senator Harrison,” she said.

  He had turned me in. Blake must not have been ab
le to stop him. Or maybe Blake hated me, now that I had almost killed his grandfather.

  Beatty put the recording device in her pocket. She nodded to the doctor and he added something to my IV. I saw a look of sadness on his face before he left the room. She watched him shut the door and then leaned close so she could hiss in my ear.

  “I hate liars.” She stared at me, a corona of moles around her eyes.

  I could smell her ancient stink, a mix of mothballs and mold. I felt a heavy fog come over me. Panic bubbled from deep down in my gut, but it couldn’t rise to the surface.

  “What … did … you … give … me?” I pushed the words out one by one.

  She straightened and looked down at me with a nasty smile.

  “Welcome to the special private club in Institution 37,” she said. “The incarceration ward.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  The next morning, I found myself on the cold concrete floor of a cell that reeked of mildew and urine. I pushed myself up to a sitting position. The right side of my head throbbed with pain. I touched it and felt a bandage. I remembered the doctor, the stitches, the car accident.

  I was wearing a baggy gray jumpsuit. A prison uniform.

  It was dark, the only light coming from a small window just below the ceiling. There was nothing to sit on. The tiny cell was empty. I stood and leaned against the wall. A hole in the floor in the corner made a constant vacuuming sound. A tight mesh panel in the metal door looked like it would open for food delivery.

  Tell me this is not going to be my life.

  I stared at the dirty walls and wondered if this was like the quarantine facility my dad was sent to, to die. For all I knew, they used the patients to experiment on. It was horrible, sending them far away from their families just to die out of sight and then be burned or buried in mass graves. We’d all heard the rumors.

  As awful as it had been for my mother to die at home, it had to be worse to die in an institution.

  Comparing places to die. Had it come to this?

  I’d been with her that day. We were walking from our car to the grocery store when we saw the explosion in the sky. It looked like a giant dandelion breaking apart, daytime fireworks that spread and then rained. Toward us.

 
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